Compartmentalization: A Life in Boxes

Recently we were talking about how someone can manage to believe stuff that is as patently untrue as Christianity’s various claims are. Antiprocess came up as one of the main explanations I could see for people refusing to accept contradictions to their beliefs; people just have a lot of ways of insulating themselves from the pushback of reality. Another explanation for how Christians maintain belief in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence is compartmentalization. I’ll show you what that is today, and why it’s so insidious for those suffering from it.

It didn't quite fit but he still sit.
It didn’t quite fitted but he still sitted.

A Compartmentalized Mind.

Oh my gosh. She made me a present. I am an asshole!

RobbieThe Wedding Singer (1998)

I’ve said before that I wasn’t ever a Creationist when I was a Pentecostal, despite that belief being an official part of my denomination’s doctrines. Indeed, I totally accepted that huge range of scientific ideas and theories that are denied by Creationism, from astronomy and physics to the conclusions of anthropology, archaeology, geology, cosmology, and even embryology and genetics. At the same time, however, I believed that the Bible was literally and inerrantly true in every single particular. These two beliefs co-existed in my head, jostling up against each other constantly, and yet I didn’t even think about how absolutely wackadoodle it was that I believed these two things at once until I had deconverted.

When I deconverted, I finally realized how stressful it had been to try to juggle those two beliefs together.

A lot of how I’d managed the trick was in boxing up these two beliefs and keeping them compartmentalized. In a nutshell, compartmentalization is the mental practice of keeping two disparate beliefs separated in metaphorical boxes so that they never touch each other, ever.

A compartmentalized person inhabits only one of those boxes at a time and switches between them as a situation warrants. Often each compartment relates to a social crowd or a physical location–like church, or home, or among the folks at the Bible study group on-campus.

Compartmentalization longside

Compartmentalization is a lot like anti-process. People that are compartmentalizing don’t usually realize that they’re doing it. Also similarly, they do it to protect themselves–in this case they’re trying to avoid noticing that they hold some beliefs that are in total opposition to each other. I can tell you that this protection is near-total even in people like I was, who believed that I was completely being authentic to myself and holding a comprehensive belief system that made total sense and was logically coherent within itself.

(“Authentic” means behaving in a way that is congruent with one’s beliefs, a way that exercises key strengths, honors one’s emotional needs, and highlights one’s personality. If you’ve heard a riff on the joke “Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman,” it’s playing on the idea of authenticity: that it’s good to grow into a life role that is authentic to our needs and strengths, but only so long as that role is not as awesome as being Batman.)

One theory in psychology–cognitive dissonance theorysays that people generally want to have all of their opinions and beliefs be consistent and harmonious as a whole. When someone has one belief that is very inconsistent with another of their beliefs, then they’ll employ a number of strategies to try to recapture a feeling of harmony.

Such a conflicted person might change one of the conflicting beliefs, obviously. But they probably won’t. People don’t generally like changing their beliefs. People who hold really demanding religious beliefs will like that idea even less–there’s just so much riding on maintaining those beliefs no matter what is learned that seriously examining them is impossible, much less adjusting them to account for that new information.

Instead, such fervent believers might try to “do the research” (I can’t stand that phrase–can you tell?). The goal is not to genuinely learn about the topic but rather to overwhelm that conflicting new information, to downplay the importance of it, or even just to shunt it further away into a box far away from their beliefs.

It’s very easy to do (and indeed it really must be, for it to happen without us noticing it going on). In my case, when I was in one social situation I was operating within one box. In other social situations I dwelt within the other box. When I was at church or evangelizing my hapless acquaintances, the Bible was 100% totally true in every verse. When I was in science class at school, then I forgot about the Biblical-literalism stuff and was totally on board with the current consensus of the scientific community.

And remember, I didn’t actually notice at the time that I was sliding between those two compartments. It happens that naturally and reflexively. I learned about authenticity in a psych class and was immediately pleased to think that yes, I’d nailed it.

Case Study: That Year I Worked In a Genetics Lab.

I do remember that it really stressed me out when I was in a situation where normally I’d be fine with science but suddenly had to switch gears back into Biblical-literalism mode in an unexpected place. My university had a Genetics Department–and for a year I worked there as its computer-cluster administrator. It was a college work-study situation and I’d just quit a similar job with a toxic Christian manager, so I needed something quickly–and this job was right up my alley.

At the time I thought that my god had personally arranged the situation to get me into a line of work that was a lot closer to what I wanted to do professionally. It didn’t even occur to me to feel trepidation about it being a lab devoted, in essence, to the visible evidence of the Theory of Evolution. I was more grossed out by the fact that at any given time there were thousands of fruit flies being incubated in the two refrigerators in the lab (out of three) than I was weirded out by the idea of working around real scientists-in-training.1

One of the other workers there was a Mormon biology major, and it drove him out of his ever-lovin’ li’l Mormon mind that I was Pentecostal. I myself had a special place in my heart for Mormons for various reasons relating to our weird similarities in several important doctrinal beliefs (in Christianese, I thought of it as a burden “Jesus” had given me for Mormons). It didn’t take much for us to zero in on each other.

So nobody could stand being around us when we were in full throat.

What nobody noticed was that every time I had to have an evangelism-style argument around this guy, I was deeply stressed out because it was happening in a context where normally I didn’t have to think about Biblical literalism. In religious contexts, I had to close myself off to that part of my thinking that involved real science. But it was really hard to do that in an office that was covered from floor to ceiling (literally in this case!) with the very real evidence of the Theory of Evolution and knowing that a few feet away, a pair of fridges were incubating that week’s current crop of evolutionary disasters in hundreds of petri dishes.

In retrospect, everyone around us probably thought we sounded a lot like two children arguing about Batman’s cloak. I’m sure it was incredibly tedious! All it took was one needling comment from him and we’d be off to the races. He wasn’t even particularly observant about his religion, making Creationism a non-starter for him; he didn’t take the religion as literally true about that topic, as indeed many Mormons don’t. But wow, he really loved starting religious arguments with me about everything else under the sun. And I didn’t feel that I could ignore his provocations–it felt to me like he was struggling mightily with something, and I wanted to be kind but also to answer his questions as thoroughly as I could.

When not getting pinned down matters more than intellectual honesty.

Related to the first point and also entirely in retrospect, I’m 99% sure now that Mormon-Lad was hiding a biiiiiiiig personal secret from himself and the world, and I implicitly reminded him of that secret every time we worked together. At the time I chalked his argumentativeness up to my Jesus Aura drawing him toward my TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ like a moth to flame. If my hindsight guess is correct, however, then he was probably struggling as hard as I was with cognitive dissonance in a context where he didn’t normally have to confront that secret, very similar to what I was experiencing about Creationism.

The only way out was to focus on something safe–and doctrinal arguments worked for both of us! There, we could both immerse ourselves fully in our respective “Pentecostalism” and “Mormonism” compartments and ignore our respective “real science happening everywhere” and “my god is gonna totally torch me” compartments.

(Before you ask: No, Mormon-Lad never even drew close to conversion. He did concede that I’d been a most worthy opponent and he’d actually valued our time together. But you probably weren’t going to ask, because most fundagelicals are dismal failures when it comes to “saving” anybody they know. Until recently I thought I’d never even successfully contributed to a single conversion; even now, that number is a very tentative “1, maybe, I dunno; ZOMG I hope not.”)

A Valid Coping Mechanism, Until It Runs Amok.

As a young entrepreneur I often get asked this question: “How do you deal with ____________ (insert word here: pressure, people, balance, challenges, family, etc)?”

What they’re really asking is, how do you deal with all these things, all at once. It’s a good question; one I’ve struggled with myself.

Ryan Blair, Forbes, June 2012

Like most maladjustments, compartmentalization isn’t always a terrible thing. People in really stressful situations can use compartmentalization to maintain their sanity and chill.

Forbes suggests what one former stress puppy thinks is a good “five-step system” that utilizes a conscious form of compartmentalization–in specific ways, in specific steps, for a specific length of time.2

WikiHow, meanwhile, tells us that someone who is really agitated over work stress while at home might use their commute home to consciously de-couple from work so that they’re ready to engage fully with their families when they walk through their front door. They can mentally agree with themselves to start thinking about work stuff again when they start the commute to work again. (I’ve used this idea to good effect, especially in jobs whose stress levels could get to unholy levels compared to the pay I was getting! See: toxic Christian manager, above.)

And Psychology Today tells us that it’s important to give ourselves permission to stop thinking about those stressful situations when we’re out of that compartment, and to remind ourselves that it’s time to engage fully with the new compartment.

So like with a lot of stuff in the world of psychology, compartmentalization can be a valid and useful defense mechanism as long as it doesn’t get out of control or lead us to becoming inauthentic for too long.

A blast from the past. He still tries this, but he can’t fit into those little tomato-paste boxes anymore and has moved up to canned cat food variety packs–as you’ll see shortly.

A Word About Narcissism.

Compartmentalization does show up in one particularly insidious personality disorder: narcissism. In the world of narcissists, it’s the perfect explanation for how a narcissist can keep a steady supply of admiration and attention-seeking directed their way from their desperate families and companions. When compartmentalization is not a conscious, short-term decision but rather encompasses a person’s entire life and affects all or most of their relationships, serving to keep others at arm’s length and to use people’s trust and affection against them, that’s where it can be disastrous and maladaptive.

As one site tells us,

The biggest benefit, of course, to compartmentalization is that the narcissist can behave one way while visiting one compartment and behave completely differently when visiting another. And since the narcissist is a pretender extraordinaire and master chameleon, the fact that he’s [sic] has to basically lie through his teeth during each visit isn’t even an issue. In fact, that’s the easiest part of the strategy!

My then-husband Biff seems like he was doing a fair bit of compartmentalization as well; his social-chameleon nature was something I understood without even thinking about it. It was amazing to watch him turn on in church situations in particular. It was a surprise to me to see that this kind of “switching” is common in narcissists. As another blogger says, “If everyone they knew got into the same room together and talked – they would be exposed.” I used to wonder what would happen if I got all of Biff’s ex-girlfriends before me into a room and asked them about how close to reality his stories about them were. I’m sure it would have been interesting.

And then there’s a psychologist who thinks that the murderer Elliot Rodger may well have suffered from this kind of compartmentalization. Eventually his compartments might have overshadowed anything decent in him and devoured it, thus disconnecting him from potential friends, allies, and even lovers. Of course, these kinds of armchair analyses must be taken carefully (even the ones I make regarding my Evil Ex; while we were together, at least, he never made good on his various threats).

Escaping the Boxes.

This one’s tricky. First the person who is compartmentalized needs to start wondering why they have these conflicting beliefs or mindsets. For me, it was getting asked “Don’t you think the Bible is literally true or whatever?” when I mentioned not being Creationist. You could have knocked me over with a feather! I had to stumble all over myself trying to explain how no no, see, it was like the Blind Men and the Elephant… and the atheist friend hearing it was so shocked he just stopped walking and stared at me. I realized right then that my excuse sounded lame as hell–and finally just stopped talking, to our mutual relief, I’m sure.

One entrepreneur says she began reintegrating an overly-compartmentalized life when she began honoring those parts of her life that she enjoyed and loved–like programming in this case, which she’d pushed out of her life to concentrate on starting a new business centering around juicing. She felt that until she found a way to integrate her love of programming with her desire to start this new juicing business, she was cutting parts of herself off and making her overall emotional health suffer.

One guy realized that he was a totally different person in his different spheres: around his family, around his job, around his friends, and by himself. He wanted to be the same person in all of those spheres, “with no separation, no partitions, and no dissonance.” For him that meant an end to pretense, an end to “trying to become anything,” but rather embarking on a life where he was “expressing and expanding” what was really there already.

For my part, I didn’t start becoming more authentic to myself and start forming a cohesive worldview until I began that long, long process of discarding untrue beliefs. It turns out that authenticity and cohesiveness is a lot easier to achieve when we don’t believe stuff that is one-hundred-and-crazy-percent untrue.

And sometimes it takes a little professional help to figure this stuff out. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need it, obviously.

Dubious Bumble is Dubious (550)

When Escape Isn’t Possible Yet.

Except in the very most insular of groups, it may well be impossible for Christians to avoid that kind of partitioning while untrue beliefs are in operation, because of necessity most of them are going to constantly run into social situations where they can’t possibly act the same way that they act around church people without folks thinking they’re weird.

For others still, escaping the boxes might be hard because we’re under financial constraints from parents or a job that requires us to mouth platitudes that we don’t believe anymore. Or perhaps we can’t really reveal our true selves to our families for fear that we’ll be ostracized. Authenticity to one’s beliefs is sometimes purchased at a very high price.

But it’s worth pursuing, if you can do it. If you can’t, then nobody gets to give you any trouble over it; the price to pay is yours and yours alone, and only you can decide what’s too much or what’s enough to risk. All I can do is to encourage folks to move in that direction at whatever speed they feel is safe, because the end result is something that I’ve never heard regretted. It turns out that it’s wonderfully freeing to be the same person, your real person, the person you really are inside, no matter who you’re talking to or what the topic is. All those boxes don’t ever seem to add up to one entire whole person, if that makes sense.

If someone can’t break up all those boxes right away, it can become essential to find a group where they can be themselves for just a little while and to find ways of being authentic in safe ways. The internet’s become so instrumental in helping such folks find each other! And that sense of community and authentic belonging can help people find the strength they need to start pushing for that authenticity everywhere else they can.

In other words, gang, fundagelicals and other religious extremists are boned.

Join us next time as we look at a bizarre situation in right-wing Christianity: Death before divorce. See you then!

Sorry for the vertical feed… It’ll hopefully be fixed by the time you see this post.

1 My orientation, from the head lab manager: “Don’t ever use those two fridges. Only use that one in the middle.”
Me: “Why? Oh. Um. EWW.”

2 A stress puppy is someone who appears to thrive on stress and constraints, even actively seeking them out. The term might come from the IT field.

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